Stunning, svelte, smart Ipshita is a globetrotter. She treks across the world to gather bytes for the travel chats she designs and hosts for TV channels. Despite being a self-assured and sophisticated entrepreneur, she is haunted by a nameless fear. Social interaction with men unleashes psychotic turmoil inside her, making her wary of male attentions. Yet, the cold and aloof, Ipshita is inexorably drawn to the three men she meets at different points in her journey. Her arousal to the overtures of these men catches her unawares. Well-built defenses break as her dormant sexuality go into overdrive until she discovers the horrifying truth about them…and herself. Life puzzles. Secrets tumble out. Will she be able to reclaim her life or let it dangle? Sutapa’s debut novel is captivating. Here’s a book extract from a must read book, published by Readomania, exclusively in Different Truths.
‘What’s wrong with the car?’ Ipshita worried.
Hope it won’t stall in some remote place!
‘Sorry Ma’am. Not driven for a long time; have to keep car hidden from militants,’ Khei explained in broken English.
‘Hidden from the militants? Why?’ Ipshita asked as she was jerked forward with a momentum that slowly smoothened.
‘They take car away, use it for their things and then crash it somewhere. When car is found, the police are after you since it is registered in your name.’
‘But why do you let militants take away your car?’
‘Who will say ‘no’ to them?’ Khei shook his head sadly. ‘They kill us if we dare to make a sound. We give them everything; our houses, a percentage of our salaries, our cars, even our boys and girls if they demand it. Our position is very bad, Ma’am… hanging in between boiling pot and fire!’
The jawan chimed in, ‘Very bad, Memsahib. Nothing is right here.’
Ipshita was stunned. This means, in Manipur, common people are being squeezed like a tube of toothpaste. Insurgents and politicians both demanded their pieces of silver for the promise of a land flowing with milk and honey.
And all that the Manipuris want is what ordinary people anywhere in the world want; safe lives and the freedom to make choices.
Khei was going on, ‘It is difficult to hide cars. So we empty petrol tanks and bury tyres in fields. When we want to use the car we fill just as much petrol as needed…a few litres. When trip is over, tank again empty. Militants can’t drive cars on empty tanks, can they?’
Ipshita suddenly recalled seeing old women and young boys holding petrol cans beside them, squatting by the roadside.
Ohhh…so they were hawking petrol! What a simple yet effective way to get around a serious life-threatening problem?
The van coughed and spluttered as it wound up the hill and then rolled down a steep slope. They were in a valley encircled by green, thickly-wooded hills. Looking around, Ipshita understood how anybody in the valley would be an easy target on the crosshairs of a sniper hidden amongst uphill foliage. On the incline, the shimmering waters of Loktak Lake came into view, like a huge mirror. Close up, Ipshita spied the renowned phumdis lazily floating on the surface.
Green polka dots on blue silk.
(From pages 92 to 95)
Imran was shouting and Adi seemed to be chanting, ‘Oh God! Oh God! Oh God!’ It was not a regular chant though, as the decibels increased each time. Shaking off sleep, she opened her eyes wide to take in her surroundings. Adi was looking straight ahead. Imran and the driver were missing. Ipshita followed Adi’s gaze, but all she could see was a column of smoke rising above the QRT truck standing before their jonga. Strangely, it was empty!
‘What? What has happened?’ was Ipshita’s sleep-slurred question.
‘Am… ambush! It’s an ambush!’ Adi responded in an unsteady voice.
‘Where? What? Are we being attacked?’ Ipshita screamed incoherently, twisting and turning to look out of the windows, expecting to find mud-smeared men with guns pointed at them, among the gently waving paddy.
Instantly Adi’s arm came around her shoulders. ‘No! Not us, Ipshita. There has already been an ambush. Our convoy has stopped because the road ahead is blocked.’
Imran appeared outside Adi’s window. ‘There will be a delay. It is the Churachandpur unit. Major Giri was moving to Leimakhong. His QRT was ambushed.’
Noticing Ipshita, her eyes wide with fear, he added, ‘You know him, Ipshita. We were at their location the day you visited Loktak. You remember?’
‘Yes.’ Ipshita whispered.
She remembered the polite Major Giri, who had served with her father, who had wanted to be photographed and been snubbed by Vikram.
‘Well! He is a goner I think; took at least four bullets.’
‘What? Where is he? Is he here?’ Shock made her voice shrill.
‘No, the seriously wounded have been shifted to the closest field hospital. The ambulance just left with him and five others. We lost four men here,’ Imran said gravely.
‘Can I get down? Can I go there?’ Adi wanted to know.
‘Okay, but stay out of the way. The clean-up is in process. This road has to be opened fast.’
‘Yes, of course.’
Adi was about to jump out when Ipshita said, ‘I will come, too.’
Ipshita was not going to stay in the claustrophobic jonga all by herself.
‘No, Ipshita. You better stay here.’
All Adi’s protective instincts kicked in and he put a hand on her shoulder, trying to pacify her.
‘No way will I stay here.’ Ipshita’s tone was adamant. ‘Besides, I am a journalist.’
‘No photos, Ipshita. Your camera cannot capture this. This is classified.’ Imran’s tone was firm.
‘I understand.’ Ipshita moved her camera bag to the far corner of the seat.
Adi leaped out and helped Ipshita down. An acrid smell hung in the air; a blend of burned rubber, wood, metal and something else, charred flesh perhaps!
They haltingly followed Imran, not knowing what to expect in the aftermath of an ambush. As the place slowly came into view their attention was caught by the carcass of a smoking vehicle. Directly hit by the explosion, it was a twisted heap of metal, the rubber of its tyres was burnt to a gooey mass, while the metal was all askew, stunted, some edges still red hot.
On reaching the vehicle, Ipshita could see a wristwatch, its glass cover cracked, lying on the burned seat, still visible beneath wisps of smoke curling out of the bare frame.
‘That’s Major Giri’s watch. I saw it on his wrist the other day.’
‘I can’t believe this!’ exclaimed Adi
He brought his hands close to the smouldering metal. Bending down, Ipshita noticed tiny holes with puckered edges pockmarking the entire bodywork. The metal skin of the vehicle looked like a giant sieve.
‘What is this? How did this happen?’
‘Bullets sprayed nearly hundred a minute go through metal as though it were butter.’ Imran drily remarked.
‘He never had a chance, did he, Imran?’
Ipshita could still see Major Giri’s gentle eyes light up, when she had complimented him on his cook’s expertise.
‘His driver died using his body to shield Giri.’
Ipshita looked up at Imran but could not see him clearly through her brimming eyes.
‘Giri was hit, but he still shot a few of them,’ continued Imran, grimacing.
He pointed across the road. Ipshita had seen some mounds on the dusty tarmac. She had not given them a second glance, taking them to be bundles of clothes. Though how such bundles came to be lying on a highway, her befuddled brain had not figured. Now she could see patches of damp darkness on the soil around them. Adi walked across to look but Ipshita couldn’t bear to.
After all, death is the final truth for every living creature. Whether they were jawans or militants in life, death is the great equalizer. And the dead deserve respect.
Why have those bodies been abandoned in this way? Was it because they had been militants? That is so wrong!
Then she looked around and realized that once again she had judged too soon. Under the spread of a huge banyan by the road men were lying or sitting like rag dolls thrown around randomly by a whimsical child. Some were patched up with coarse bandages, some held twisted or even severed limbs, faces contorted with silent cries, while some others just stared into the distance, shell-shocked. Both uniforms and dazed faces were smeared with grime and smoke. Two medics attended to them.
These battle-weary men have neither the energy nor the mental faculty to attend to ethical niceties! This is war!
Despite being born and brought up in an Army home, it was the first time that Ipshita had actually faced the harsh reality of a soldier’s profession. She had finally grasped what it meant to put one’s life on the line for the country. Her eyes were drawn to a heap of motionless bodies covered by blankets on the floor of a truck.
Like lightening, flashed the image of her father’s helper laughing while teaching her teetering ten-year- old self to ride a bicycle! She recalled Imran’s biting words, “When people have safe, stable lives, they don’t know what they are getting. They want excitement.”
She understood his bitterness now. This is the real Army, not her sheltered childhood of helpers, parties and fine living! Even though every piece of the intricate machine that the Indian Army is, kept training day in and day out for the eventuality of war, and its principle of kill or be killed, it certainly eroded a man’s soul to see fellow officers and men fall to the bullet every day. She understood, now.
(From pages 142 to 145)
The lilt of a flute fills half shadows. Emerald green silk unfurls to lavender hills. Mist gives way to a golden spectacle. Thickly embroidered into flowing waters are hundreds of lotuses. Sunlight dazzles on ruby, sapphire, turquoise, and amethyst that reluctantly open their layers to reveal honeyed hearts. The humming of multitudes of bees reverberates in the room. Intoxicated by the sun-drenched perfume of blossoms, they weave in and out of the pattern. Sheer colours daze the senses. Drumbeats intrude softly, only to rise to a crescendo.
Another shape enters the frame. Hazy at first, the outlines darken gradually. It is an empty square etched in bold strokes holding within it diagonally a metallic piece curved to the bent of an index finger. Thelens zoom out. The shape takes definition. It is the trigger of a snub-nosed AK-47. The drums fall silent.
Everybody holds their breath. There is a thud and the face of Beauty is blotted with a gun stamped on it. There is a collective gasp. The screen stills. Strobes pick out a small crowd, including cameras on cantilever arms. Each person in the room is mesmerized…nobody can look away.
Giving a couple of seconds for the impact to sink in, the focus beams on Ipshita, the host. She begins the chat. Microphones pick up frequencies of her voice, enhancing its soft huskiness. Statistics and logistics start appearing on two screens flanking the bigger screen on which images phanesks fish to bite fill the screen behind her. She goes on to the fascinating scenes of Loktak, the floating islands, the fisherman’s hut and through her words she builds up a metaphor. It is of Manipur, a dainty nymph struggling to escape rape by Mars, the god of war. She is crushed, yet nothing erodes her indomitable spirit.
Moirang did not just resonate with the fierce dedication of freedom fighters. It created awe for the people of Manipur, who are even now fighting against vested powers. Their patience and resilience make them true victors in this war. Despite their travails it is a tale of people reeling under bullets, yet wresting the right to live normal lives in abnormal times.
These are stories of the postman cycling to work, of children laughing as they trudge to school, of women swatting flies off fish for sale, of saffron-clad Vaishnavs singing in the temple. These stories are of people living ordinary everyday lives with full awareness that they live under the shadow of the gun. They are aware that anywhere, anytime, any of them could stop a bullet. They can die for no fault other than living in a land torn open by militancy.
Ipshita’s compassion for their plight echoed in the hearts of her audience. Ringing in their ears was her conviction that pain existed in human lives only to prove that human courage can vanquish it and human spirit rise above it.
She concluded the Manipur travel chat with the verses penned by Adi. He had vehemently protested their inclusion saying they were too amateurish. But Ipshita had overridden all his objections as always; and he had indulged her, again as always.
There were many queries during the open house session. Most frequently, her audience wanted to see the sights themselves. Ipshita outlined the process they would have to follow to procure a pass from the Ministry of Defence. It was a long and painstaking one and sometimes the MoD did a background check of applicants. ‘There is no way to shorten the process or curry favours,’ said Ipshita in response to a man who dared to ask.
‘This is the armed forces, remember?’ she continued, shocked that people could be so blatantly corrupt. Of course, the channel would edit the interaction out.
(From pages 172 to 173)
Her last sight of Steve was of a dark face twisted into a snarl. The lips, no longer sensuous, were drawn back from his canines, almost animal-like. Within minutes he had transformed from an attractive man to a stalking predator. Ipshita pulled the heavy curtains across the glass door, shutting him off, and got into bed. She pulled her legs up under her, wrapping her arms around them, rolling herself into a tight ball. She was trembling violently. Steve’s banging shook the glass door.
Will it hold?
Ipshita panicked, looking around the well-lit room for something that she could use as a weapon. Nothing seemed suitable. Heavy fists rained on the door but the strong teak inlaid with reinforced glass did not give in.
Ipshita could not take her frightened eyes off the curtained doorway.
What have I got myself into? This is exactly what Adi keeps warning me about! Oh God! Adi! What will he think, if he knew how I nearly…
She squirmed, colour spreading from her cheeks to her neck, thinking about her behaviour just moments ago.
How could I behave with such abandon? Wanton! That’s the word. Oh God! How could I? And I have been unfaithful to Adi! In thoughts and action. Sorry …sorry, Adi. You were right. Oh! So right!
She covered her hot cheeks with her palms.
As the banging continued, Ipshita grew frantic. She wondered if she could barricade herself in the bathroom, in case the door gave way. She scuttled into it and observed that it had just one small sealed glass window set high on the wall. As she stood there considering whether it was a better place, the noise at the front door suddenly ceased. She walked out to the connecting doorway, peeped at the curtained door, alert for the next move.
Something or someone scratched a surface. It seemed to be coming from the bathroom window. Stunned, she looked up at the glazed glass. He seemed to have come around the cottage and was now trying to break in through the window. Ipshita immediately pulled the bathroom door shut and locked it. She felt the door. It seemed solid.
She went back to bed and pulled the covers over her head.
Thank God, the window is too high and too small for him to climb through! There are no trees behind the cottage, only grass. There’s nothing he can use to climb up to the level of the aperture. All he could do was to reach it with his fingers and scratch.… But how did he know that I had stepped into the bathroom? Can he see through the curtain? Or can he read my mind?
For the time being, at least, Ipshita felt safe. Of course, she was cut off from the bathroom but she would deal with it later. She cocooned herself in the blankets and strained her ears to listen to sounds from outside. She could hear a dull swishing, of the waves perhaps, nothing more.
As the warmth of the blankets seeped into her, her adrenaline lowered and drowsiness overtook her body, countering the shock and fear. She fought against it, shaking her head to keep her eyes open, focusing on the sound from the bathroom. But soon she couldn’t hear it anymore as her lids drooped tiredly and her body gave up to the sedation of sleep.
A faint rumbling woke Ipshita. She opened her eyes at once, looking around the room. Fearfully, her ears sought out suspicious sounds. Memory does not let go so easily. However, silence in an empty room, and the muted chirping of birds heralded another fine morning.
Then what had woken me up? There it is, again.
Ipshita laughed out loud. It was her stomach grumbling loudly in protest that no sustenance had reached it since the evening before. But first, she had to check out of the resort.
On silent feet, Ipshita padded to the bathroom and put her ear to the door. It was quiet on other side. She softly twisted the handle, eased the door open a chink and waited. Her arm was poised to pull the door shut at the slightest hint of sound or movement.
But nothing alarming happened and she slowly pushed the door open and stuck her head in. The lights were on and things were exactly as she had left them the night before. She glanced up at the glass window. It was smooth and unmarked, sunlight trying to shine through the glaze. Ipshita stepped inside.
The front door seemed similarly untouched. Ipshita walked out to the balcony, cup in hand and surveyed the scene. Squirrels scampered across the dew-sprinkled grass, laughter floated from the poolside, some hotel staff cleaned the water, waves heaved and dipped in the distance as a sailing boat pranced on them, a small blue bird hopped from the braided palm to the rails.
Everything looks so innocent. Who would believe in their complicity last night? Was this another dangle? But this time, I invited it with my irresponsible behaviour.
(From pages 205 to 207)
About the Author
An author, poet and publishing consultant, Sutapa Basu also dabbles in art and trains trainers and is a compulsive bookworm. During a thirty-year old professional career as teacher, editor, and publisher, she travelled the Indian subcontinent, Nepal and Bhutan. She has visited UK, USA and Dubai, while working as the Editorial Manager, Oxford University Press, India and Publishing Director, Encyclopædia Britannica, South Asia, until 2013, when she decided to start writing seriously. Alongside, she continued with her forays into Singapore, Indonesia, Oman and Western Europe. Her travel-related curiosities manage to jostle their way into most of her renditions adding authentic spice to the flavour.
Sutapa is an Honours scholar from Tagore’s Visva-Bharti University, Santiniketan and holds a teaching as well as a master’s degree in English Literature.
As a publisher, Sutapa has developed and published around 400 books. Recently, her short story was awarded the First Prize in the Times of India’s nation-wide WriteIndia Contest, under author, Amish Tripathi.
(Contributed by Sutapa Basu, author, Dangle, Readomania).
Editor’s Note: Excerpted with permission from ‘Dangle’, by Sutapa Basu, published by Readomania. It is reproduced as received. DT has not edited it.
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©Sutapa Basu, 2016
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